By Todd Ceisner
While Hank Cherry claimed victory at the 50th Bassmaster Classic by targeting a combination of grass and rock, the balance of the top 5 focused almost exclusively on grass.
Conditions were a supreme challenge with water clarity deteriorating, then improving, and the water temperature rising through the event. Anglers also had to wrestle with stiff winds, especially on day 1. Most of the key areas the top finishers found in practice held up during the competition save for a few spots that required a day or two for the water to clear up.
The pre-spawn bass were clearly in the midst of their pre-spawn transition as none of the other contenders concentrated on water deeper than 10 feet. Here’s a rundown of how the rest of the top 5 at the Classic caught their fish at Guntersville.
2nd: Todd Auten
> Day 1: 5, 20-00
> Day 2: 5, 18-00
> Day 3: 5, 20-10
> Total = 15, 58-10
Heading into the Classic, one of Todd Auten’s dream scenarios was for him to be able to sling a vibrating jig around grass all three days. It’s his favorite technique and one that he’s refined through the years at and around Lake Wylie, S.C., where he resides, and also over the course of his career, which has been marked by quiet consistency.
Auten got his wish at Guntersville as pre-spawners were glued to grass beds for most of the week despite the water being cooler than he’d hoped. Typically, he prefers water in the 50s for a vibrating jig to be effective, but a heavy concentration of bait where he was fishing seemed to offset the water being so cold.
“I came in hoping it’d be a ChatterBait bite, but in practice the water was 45 degrees and I’ve never caught one in water that cold,” he said. “It is Guntersville, though, and they do hit moving baits. I’ve caught them on (lipless crankbaits) when it’s been 42 degrees, so that’s why I threw that more in practice.
“I’d planned to fish docks and deep stuff, and I knew there’d be a grass bite somewhere, but that’s like finding a needle in a haystack I didn’t find it until late on the third day of practice.”
The key components to where he fished were bait and water temperature.
“I think the main reason those fish were in those beds was there was bait in there and because the water was dirtier, which helped it warm up quicker,” he said. “I noticed on the last day of practice the water was 56 degrees and bait was flipping everywhere in dirty water. That had to be the reason they were in there and fish were in there with them.”
Auten started in the same spot each day and it treated him differently each day, but eventually he’d compile a notable stringer.
“On day 1, it turned really muddy from all the rain,” he said. “I didn’t have the confidence in it, but I caught a great big one. Then I couldn’t get bites because of the wind and it turned the water to chocolate milk.”
He opted to bail on the spot and head up to Honey Comb Creek, where he’d caught a 4-pounder in practice. He wound up getting eight bites there and fortified his day-1 stringer.
On day 2, he planned to head back upriver, but never had to because the water had cleared up on his starting spot and he was able to generate consistent action.
“I knew they’d bite sometime,” he said. “I’d catch one every so often and that made me stay. I felt like I was protecting the place and was catching quality.”
To target the grass, he would position his boat over four to five feet of water and throw into 2 1/2- to 4-foot depths. The grass clumps came up about 18 inches from the bottom and in some places they were as tall as 2 1/2 feet.
“It wasn’t solid grass,” he said. “Just clumps with some solid places mixed in. The fish were more in the scattered stuff and it was easier to fish that way. I could pull my bait through there and tick the grass. When I’d feel it get hung, I’d jerk it and it seemed that ripping it produced a lot of strikes.”
When the wind got cranking, Auten opted for the lipless rattlebait because the “grass was more laid over.” When it calmed down, he went with the vibrating jig for more of a silent presentation. Auten caught 10 of his weigh-in fish on the vibrating jig and the rest on the lipless crankbait.
> Vibrating jig gear: 7’1” medium-heavy Douglas Rods XMatrix casting rod, Daiwa Tatula SV 100 casting reel (6.3:1 ratio), 20-pound Bass Pro Shops Excel monofilament line, 1/2-oz. Z-Man/Evergreen Jackhammer ChatterBait (fire craw), Zoom Z-Craw Jr. (Cajun craw).
> He also mixed in a 1/2-oz. Strike King Red Eye Shad (crawdad) on the outside edges of grass lines using the same tackle set up as outlined above.
Stetson Blaylock threw nothing but hard baits at Guntersville.
3rd: Stetson Blaylock
> Day 1: 5, 18-05
> Day 2: 5, 19-04
> Day 3: 5, 20-08
> Total = 15, 58-01
In practice, Stetson Blaylock put together a crankbait program and started to build confidence in it. Then on the official practice day (two days before competition began), he couldn’t buy a bite on the Norman Speed N prototype. He knew he’d have to lean on backup plans and that wound up being areas in the backs of creeks where fish would school. For those spots, he leaned on a lipless crankbait.
“The cold weather backed them out,” he said. “On Wednesday, it was warmer and breezy and the water warmed up and they pushed back in, but I knew if I wanted a chance to win, I had to try to make the crankbait thing work.”
He thinks the fish he was catching in practice were on their pre-spawn migration and it took a bit for some new fish to move into those areas amidst the changing weather and water conditions.
“The key decision for me was where I started on day 1,” he said. “I caught a quick limit and that set the tone so I was able to calm down and fish. I knew cranking grass wouldn’t get all of the bites, but I had a solid limit to work up from there.”
Eelgrass was his vegetation of choice, but he also hit some ditches and high spots. The key depth range for Blaylock was 4 to 6 feet. He was hitting six to eight spots per day and throwing hard baits at every stop. His two best fish on day 3 fell from a Rayburn red Boo-Yah Hard Knocker lipless crank.
“I think I still would’ve finished second if Hank hadn’t caught 30 on day 1,” Blaylock said. “That tells me I was not on the winning fish. That’s how I live in my career, though. You find what you can find and roll with it. If you go do your job and it’s your time, you’ll win.”
> Cranking gear: 7’4” medium-heavy H20 Express prototype cranking rod, H20 Express Ethos HS casting reel (6.6:1 ratio), 20-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, Norman Speed N (chili bowl).
> Lipless cranking gear: 7’3” heavy-action H20 Express crankbait rod, H20 Express Tac-40 casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), same line (17-pound), 1/2-oz. Boo-Yah One Knocker (bling), 1/2-oz. Boo-Yah Hard Knocker (Rayburn red).
Seth Feider relied on a vibrating jig throughout the tournament.
4th: Seth Feider
> Day 1: 5, 16-10
> Day 2: 5, 15-09
> Day 3: 5, 21-13
> Total = 15, 54-00
Feider’s attention was also trained on grass, although in his case hydrilla was the common variable to his areas.
“There was eelgrass everywhere on the bars, but the areas I keyed on were hydrilla,” he said. “It didn’t look good, but it was twice as tall as the eelgrass.”
And that offered more cover for bass looking for stopping points on their pre-spawn migration. Most of his bites came in five to six feet of water and he tried to keep the bait above the grass. He never got a bite after getting the bait hung and then ripping it free. He noticed a quick handle turn of the reel coupled with a pop of the rod triggered several bites.
“Every place I caught them in the tournament was a place I’d gotten bites in practice,” he added. “I had three key stretches in practice, but the first two days of competition two of them were too muddy so I had to beat up one stretch on those days. On day 3, I got to fish all three and got more bites.”
He's convinced that had the event been a four-day tournament, Monday would’ve produced some bigger weights.
“That’s where the winning fish were,” he said. “I wasn’t worried about points so even if I blanked I’d go back there and do it again.”
> Vibrating jig gear: 7’4” medium-heavy Daiwa Tatula Elite AGS crankbait/vibrating jig casting rod, Daiwa Tatula SV TW103 casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 17-pound Sufix Advanced fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. Z-Man/Evergreen Jackhammer ChatterBait (clearwater shad), 3.25” BioSpawn Exo Swim trailer (Feider shad).
Micah Frazier stayed in contention with a two-pronged approach.
5th: Micah Frazier
> Day 1: 5, 20-00
> Day 2: 5, 16-00
> Day 3: 5, 18-00
> Total = 15, 54-00
Like Blaylock, Micah Frazier was zeroed in on grassy places in pre-spawn staging areas. He said most everything he found in practice held up during the tournament and if it were a four-day tournament, he thinks he could’ve piled up the weight.
“Another day and I would’ve wrecked them,” he said, noting the fish didn’t turn on in one of his key areas until midday Sunday. “I didn’t really even look at bridges or rock much because I’ve never been able to get that figured out.”
The biggest challenge he overcame was staying in contention despite his best area being unfishable on day 1. He resorted to cranking grass on a handful of spots over the first 1 1/2 days.
“I had a few different areas and I thought it was a pattern, but it morphed into more of a three- or four-spot thing where it was predictable,” he said.
The key depth for his bait was about five feet and he got most of his bites over top of submerged eelgrass.
“The type of grass didn’t seem to matter,” he said. “Half of them were in eelgrass and half had a mix of hydrilla and eelgrass. When I found just hydrilla, I couldn’t get a bite for some reason.”
The spot he intended to fish on day 1 was blown out by the rains that came through Wednesday night and Thursday, but he didn’t write it off completely. He revisited it on the afternoon of day 2 and the water had cleared up, allowing him to catch an upgrade that he weighed in. On the final day, he camped in that area and caught 18-00 on a 5-inch paddletail swimbait rigged on a jighead.
The key was getting the swimbait down toward the top of the eelgrass in 18 inches of water and easing it out.
> Cranking gear: 7’4” medium-heavy moderate Abu Garcia Veracity casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo Premier casting reel, 20-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, Norman Speed N (chili bowl).
> Frazier hung #2 Gamakatsu G-Finesse treble hooks on the crankbait, which will be introduced at ICAST in July.
> Swimbait gear: 7’3” medium-heavy Abu Garcia Veracity casting rod, same reel, same line (16-pound), 3/8-oz. unnamed jighead, 5” YUM Money Minnow (shad).